Beyond doubt, Jane Austen enjoyed reading Gothic novels. She must have read several books in this genre, particularly the ‘female Gothic’ tales of Ann Radcliffe, to parody them so knowledgeably Northanger Abbey, and multiple readings strongly indicates she read them because she liked them. Yes, she mocked the hell out of Gothic conventions, but she mocked the hell out of a lot of things she liked. It was in Austen’s nature to find even the things she loved risible and then to rizz them; it’s why so many of us love her work.
Although there were fuddy-duddies who disliked novel reading, the Austen family weren’t so foolish. Nor did they eschew the Gothic, or n Austen daughter wouldn’t have read them. However, there were levels of Gothic to which gently bred young women were not expected to descend. Reading Radcliffe or Clara Reeve was one thing; the depravities printed in Matthew Lewis’s book The Monk (1796) was another thing altogether.
Frankly, one can blame German authors for the depths to which British culture was willing to sink in a horrid story. It was German authors , such as Friedrich von Schiller and Karl Grosse, who developed and perfected the “shudder novel”, or schauerroman. Unlike the uncanny but rational tales of Radcliffe and Reeve, the schauerroman were focused on terror rather than romantic suspense. These writings were the spiritual progenitors of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, rather than Victoria Holt and Barbara Michaels. German shudder novels were more likely to employ necromancy and secret societies as plot devices than to use not-really-haunted haunted castles to spook the reader, and they were significantly more pessimistic and violent than British Gothic novels generally were.
As with anything well done, it inspired other people to do it too. Matthew Lewis was the first British author to mimic the schauerroman style but he was far from the last. Moreover, the schauerroman were translated in English and French, and were available in circulating libraries throughout Britain, as well as book stores in the daring and cosmopolitan capitol. People wanted to read these horrid novels, they wanted to shudder. These novels were so popular that even Ann Radcliffe, the veritable mother of the genre, made a brief foray into the form in her last novel, The Italian (1797).
Young ladies wanted to schauerroman too, which caused a bit of a moral dilemma in Georgian Britain. The populace hadn’t yet fallen into the delusional chasm regarding feminine attributes that would mark the Victorian era, but delicacy was still a by-word for women. Delicate young ladies weren’t supposed to be that interested in the lurid. Young ladies were supposed to avoid shuddering, whenever possible. Moral arbiters disapproved of young ladies reading schauerroman; it displayed of lack of feminine loathing, a want of propriety.
Ann Radcliffe would stop writing in the genre that she had helped to build because she found the new trajectory in Gothic tales too gruesome. What sort of lady would read these stories, let alone write them? Love for the schauerroman became seen by some as a hallmark of the lessening in feminine virtue in he young, a coarsening of English womanhood.
I have Henry Crawford and Dr Grant discuss the allure of schauerroman in my novel Mansfield Parsonage, a retelling of Austen’s Mansfield Park, and make a point of Dr Grant advising Henry never to translate them for Mary Crawford. As a middle-aged vicar, Dr Grant would have thought schauerroman too horrible for the sensibilities of his young sister-in-law. I also made of a point of Mary Crawford’s willingness, her desire, to hear these German horror stories to highlight the contrast between her and the protagonist of Austen’s original, Fanny Price. If Fanny was the embodiment of the proper, idealized, old-fashioned English modesty, then Mary must stand as her antithesis; an improperly independent and continental modern woman.
What about Jane Austen herself? Was she a saint like Fanny Price, or did she sin like Mary Crawford in her literary tastes? She clearly read Radcliffe, but did she read The Monk or (Heaven forbid!) any of the translated schauerroman? Austen (regardless of any personal inclination to rebel she might have had and the bravery of her female characters) was a stickler for propriety. If her parents disapproved of schauerroman, Austen would have probably respected her parents’ mandates. However, did the Austens actually forbid the horrid? Did the siren call of curiosity lure Jane into reading an English copy of Undine (1811) even if her parents forbade it?
It’s hard to tell. On one hand, her characters were familiar with them, as anyone literate at that time would have been. Horrid Mysteries (1796) and The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) were both schauerroman and both on the list of books recommended to Catherine Moreland by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. It is assumed Catherine will read them, but she asks Isabella only if they are horrid, not if they are fit for a young woman to read. Nor does Catherine or the narrative voice imply these books unworthy of reading. Was the fact that the heroine, who clearly lacked neither delicacy or femininity, a reader of schauerroman Jane Austen’s way of defending the stories? Did she defend them because she read them too?
Maybe not. Isabella, the character giving Catherine the recommendation, is later proven to be false, unfeeling, and emotionally coarse. She encourages Catherine more than once to do things that were not right, not proper; she was a moral and social danger to Catherine. Was her reading list another example of her dangers to Catherine? Moreover, had Isabella become a callow woman because she read horrid novels? If that is what Austen was implying, does this mean that Austen agreed with those who though shudder novels were harmful to their young female readers, or was it sarcasm aimed at those who though such behaviors so simply generated?
More condemnation may be perceived in the praise of John Thorpe, an oaf without relief, who proclaimed that he liked The Monk. Catherine found no problem with his having read the book, merely taking the opportunity to recommend Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, but does that mean that Austen likewise excused reading it? Thorpe would eventually become an example of all that was uncouth and odious in a faux-gentleman, so does the fact he liked The Monk cast aspersions on those who read it? John Thorpe was so stupid that he disliked one Austen’s favorite novels, Camilla, so was his enjoyment of The Monk an indicator that only fools relished it?
Yet how can Austen be reproaching a character for reading The Monk, when she strongly implied that Catherine Moreland had read it as well? Catherine is the heroine of Northanger Abbey, and reading The Monk did not injured her modesty or make her one iota less worthy of the hero, Henry Tilney. Was Austen therefore asserting there was no harm in young women reading such books?
Maybe reading The Monk didn’t harm Catherine’s morals, but Northanger Abbey makes it clear that reading horrid novels hadn’t done her any favors either. Reading horrid novels has rendered the heroine credulous and silly and prone to seeking phantasms were there were none. It was up to Henry Tilney, who enjoyed sentimental novels and Radcliffe but never indulged in something as sordid as The Monk, to steer Catherine back onto the path of rationality.
Over all, I would argue that Austen liked Gothics well enough, but thought they should be taken in moderation. As we would see in Marianne Dashwood, Austen didn’t approve of over-indulgence of romantic sensibility in any form, horrid or not. I would also argue that, like Radcliffe, that she found the trend toward horror rather than suspense in the Gothic novel to be disagreeable. Too much of even the “good” Gothic was unwise for impressionable young girls, but enjoyment of schauerroman was unwise for anyone. Liking such things might even be a mark of a degraded character.